When We All Have a Say, Who Flies the Plane?

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

You find your seat, stuff your bag in the overhead, sit down, and put your lap-belt on.

Sixteen inches from your face, the video lights up.

Welcome aboard our flight today. I’m the Chairman of this airline’s board of directors, and I’d like to ask for three minutes of your help.

Our customers are the heart of what we do.

Our Board is trying to decide how far that can go. With this in mind, we’ve drafted some possible new guidance for our great airline. We want to hear from you, our customers – the reason we fly.

Please touch the screen to express your support for each of the following measures on a scale of 1 to 4 (where 4 expresses greatest support).

  1. Customers were under-represented in past decisions around fuel mix, engine technology, flying altitude, and emergency procedures. We propose to consult you regularly from now on. Based on passenger consultations, the airline CEO will make sure customer concerns are addressed.  

[Your fellow passengers tap their screens in response. You hesitate and look around. You see your seat-mate touch 4.]

  1. Criteria for making weather-related flight cancellations should reflect customer needs. The airline CEO will lead a consultation process to review these criteria. The decision criteria in poor weather may be relaxed if customers believe they were needlessly inconvenienced by past cancellations.

[Your seat-mate touches 3.]

  1. The airline CEO will transition our company to full “flight deck transparency.” Conversations within the flight deck, and between aircraft and ground, will be available for you to monitor on Channel 3 of our audio system.

[Your seat-mate hesitates, then touches 2.]

  1. In the next level of “flight deck transparency,” passengers will be able to submit real-time comments on those flight deck conversations. Comments will be moderated by the flight director and read to the pilot.

[Your seat-mate starts looking around the cabin. Others are doing the same. An audible murmur starts.]

  1. In the next level of “flight deck transparency,” warning signals and alarms from our avionic systems would be broadcast on the cabin speakers. We plan for passengers to be able to record their level of concern online at fifteen-second intervals. At each interval the pilot would hear a reading of the current average concern level. When multiple alarms are sounding, this reading frequency to the pilot would be shortened to five-second intervals.

The murmur of worry gets louder; hands move away from screens.

Absurd? Not entirely.

Sure, nearly all of us probably want to let the pilots fly the planes – and not distract them with our “concern level.” Whether it’s because we trust their professional qualifications, or we trust those who regulate them, or just because we aren’t sure we know better than they do, we let them do their jobs.

What about the “pilots” of the other critical systems in our modern world – those who plan and maintain city drinking water supplies, for example? Or the public health officers who manage disease outbreaks? Or fire marshals who regulate our office and apartment buildings to reduce fire risks? Do we let them do their jobs? In these cases, mostly the answer is yes, particularly as long as their record of protecting us is good.

Look further and the situation gets muddier. In CNA’s mid-2014 poll, nearly one in four respondents did NOT agree that the government agencies that regulate Canadian nuclear power plants are taking the issue of safety “seriously.” Attend public regulatory hearings and you’ll hear the same message in even less polite terms from those citizens who turn out to state their views. Canadians say they trust the corporations running the plants just as much as they trust the independent public regulators, if not more so. And trust in the public regulators seems to be trending downward.

Regulate Canadian power plants graph

It’s not just nuclear. A similar trend seems to affect a wide range of industry regulatory activities: from health product approvals to food inspection to environmental assessments to electricity generation. Canadians appear less and less willing to trust the people and processes inside regulatory bodies. The result is that more and more, public regulatory decisions get fought out in sidewalk protests, social media, TV news, legislatures, or election campaigns.

This is surprising when you consider that over the past 250 years, the rise of our professional standards of practice, product codes, and independent regulatory agencies have advanced ordinary people’s health and safety by orders of magnitude. (See “How can Nuclear Power be Safe?”)

By the evidence, this is one of the great successes of western society, owed to quiet technocrats who stayed out of politics and applied objective scientific and economic measures to find the public good.

Yet we now seem willing to discard it in favor of political processes where the winners are more likely to be the loudest screamers, the best-resourced lobbyists, or the richest property owners. In re-politicizing regulated industries, we don’t necessarily democratize decisions; rather, we may empower the noisy few. And much clear, demonstrable progress toward better decision-making may simply get undone.

It’s a big issue. It threatens to be a big step backward. And it’s something we should be talking more about. Pilots aren’t perfect; they’re human. So are their managers, and their CEOs, and their Boards, and their regulators. Oversight is always needed. But are we going to let them do their jobs, or not?

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